Social Justice for the Classroom: Part 2 of a Two-Part Series

technology in the classroom is a tool. Photo by Dell; used under a Creative Commons license.By Kanene Holder, Center Alumna "The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." —Alvin Toffler

“I think the first duty of society is justice.” —Alexander Hamilton

In my previous post, I suggested we must capitalize on the momentum of social justice movements aided and propelled by social media. How, I asked, can we educate our youth and emphasize to them the possibilities for “doing good” through the technology they use every day? For those taking up this question—activists, educators, artists, and others—this is an exciting time. Never before have we had access to so much information and ways to share ideas and our stories. As an educator and activist, I am empowered by these tools in conjunction with the new Common Core Education Standards' emphasis on teaching nonfiction: It’s a perfect opportunity to re-emphasize current events and civics education.  And so I created the American Justice Missing in Action Project (#ajmia), ( a new initiative dedicated to engaging students  in conversations about race, class and gender—what I call the intersections of injustice.

Starting the Conversation One way I began to do this in the classroom was by instituting a weekly ritual where I required students to summarize an article from a reputable news source. I asked them, “Where is justice in America? In housing? In health care? In education? We are all searching! Let's start a journey from awareness to advocacy!” My students would then present their summaries and a form of response—a poem, political cartoon, skit, dance, and so on—to the class. Then they led a discussion with their peers about how the issue touched their own lives and debated possible solutions.

I instituted civics education, teaching fifth and sixth graders about the U.S. Constitution and how our government works. Students were excited to learn about zoning laws and how these regulations affected the rents their parents were paying. Eventually some of my students had their poems on patriotism published and their collages on affordable housing exhibited at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Mining Memes Another great way of engaging youth—as I shared during my workshop for the New York Coalition of Radical Educators Conference—is by using memes and political cartoons. Since students are growing up in an increasingly visual culture, they are quick to decode ironies and subtleties. Students can then compare and contrast the political agenda and the visual commentary through conversation, blogging, and by creating video. Students can also try to develop their own visual concepts and commentary—an opportunity to lend agency to an often voiceless demographic. For example, I recently showed a group of high school students a cartoon with the Statue of Liberty and Lady Justice being frisked by an NYPD officer against a wall of red and white stripes. The students immediately began to discuss their own encounters with the NYPD, and several wanted to repost the picture on Instagram or tweet about it.

American Justice Missing in Action’s mission is to get students excited about the entire political process.  In life,  reaching almost any goal worth pursuing—whether it be baking bread or raising a child—requires constant maintenance and monitoring. Full participation in the electoral process is undoubtedly a worthy goal, but today fewer than 60 percent of Americans vote and far fewer participate in local elections or petition legislators to change laws to ensure justice. If we can show students how political engagement is a way of advocating for their own interests, students can begin to invest in their future—and we ours—and initiate change.

“Occupy Wall Street” and later “Occupy” became terms shared across cooperative social justice movements and efforts. In this spirit, I am promoting AJMIA’s name to be used as a marker and organizing tactic. Tagging articles, videos, and other forms of media with #ajmia will raise awareness about various issues where justice is missing in action. For example, I have been tweeting and blogging about the sequester, the recent unemployment numbers, and the latest Exxon spill, tagging them with #ajmia to remind us that justice needs to be restored.

Though we want to empower students to know and use the system to make their voices heard, unfortunately Americans can no longer assume that our elected politicians are doing all they can for freedom and justice for all. We must speak out! We as Americans are used to instituting democracies or doling out human rights violations abroad, when often, justice is missing in action within our shores.

Read more about Kanene Holder and our other contributors here.